Al Jarreau – Accentuating The Positive – An Interview
Accentuates the Positive
by S.H. Watkins Sr.
Al Jarreau has a new CD, and it’s an all jazz album… the first he’s ever done. Getting ready for the interview, I visited his web site for some insight and information that I might not have. While browsing I ran upon a line where he asks that you email him to ask questions but not about his “zodiac sign or favorite color”. Armed with this warning, I got on the horn and gave him a ring….
JazzUSA: Hi Al, tell us a little about Accentuate The Positive… After all these years what made you decide to put out an album that is all jazz?
Al: Ahhh. it’s a promise I made to my audience a long time ago. I’ve been promising this album where I would do things that were really jazzy. There is an album from 1965, in fact it’s called Al Jarreau 1965 that was not an official album that hints in this direction, but nothing else other than these forays I made into the jazz arena, songs like Take Five and A Remark You Made and others, but not really a complete album like this, which I’d have to call a real jazzy album. I had to do this for my audience, and for me and I owe really to this genre.. style… era of music that made me who I am since We Got By. All of that stuff that I’ve been singing in R&B songs… that solo in boogie down (begins to scat a bit)… I do that because I started singing (scats and sings some more) when I was 21 years old, you know, 22 years old singing some Dizzy Gillespie hot licks, you know, from Grooving High.. so I owed it to this stuff that was my classroom, my academy, that made me who I am… and here it is first chapter. First chapter… there’ll be more.
JazzUSA: Can you give a little bit about the genesis of that 1965 record?
Al: What was happening is I was a student at the University of Iowa studying rehabilitation, which is work I went on to do about a year or two after I left there and worked in San Francisco… where I met George Duke. I was singing in this club called The Tender Trap owned by a drummer who was an ex-wrestler from the University of Iowa, he was in love with Frank Sinatra so he called it the Tender Trap. David Sanborn played there, a whole list of people who were in that neighborhood, and I went there and started sing on weekends while I was in school at the U. of I. We decided that we would go and record this music, get it down for our own library… my Mom would like to know what I’m doing when I’m not studying. That’s what we did, it was really not, at that time, meant to be released, but it GOT released, and I’m glad because it is part of my history and what I was doing before I came on the scene 15 years later.
JazzUSA: Let’s go to another night in the early 70’s… what about the night that Columbia records set up the showcase for you in L.A.?
Al: Oh my goodness! You know about that, do you? How embarrassing… man oh man. Well I had been courting Columbia, playing my music for them for a while, I had some demo tapes and stuff. One of their vice presidents was supposed to come to the Troubadour club in L.A., a brilliant club that’s still going and doing music, where I opened for Les McCann. I’m still waiting for them to show up, they never showed, but who did come was the people from Warner-Reprise and the rest is history… I signed with them and was with them for more than 20 years and most of the albums that people know me for came as a result of those several evenings that they came there and signed me up!
JazzUSA: So Warner owes it all to Columbia?
Al: (Laughs) I’m not gonna say that (Still laughing).
JazzUSA: Are there more jazz records to come?
Al: That’s what I’m about to say, I feel like this is just the beginning of a new chapter for me and there’ll be other albums like this to come, but of course I need to do that Brazilian album, and the Big Band album that I’ve been promising as long as I was promising to do this jazzy project, so yes… that and other things.
JazzUSA: Why write a song about Betty Carter?
Al: Oh… every reason in the world to and not very many reasons NOT to write a song about Betty Carter. She was a force. She doesn’t get the kudos that Ella Fitzgerald gets, that Carmen McRae gets, and certainly not Diana Krall and Norah Jones (laughs). But, (she was) a brilliant singer right out of that improvisational, free floating kind of spirit of the moment is the way she performed and touched me, and thousands, and I just wanted to tip my hat to her and say that her song is still playing in my heart and on my face as raindrops fall… and that’s why I wrote that first line, you know….
JazzUSA: She’s a wonderful lady…
Al: Brilliant lady. And thank you for picking up on that because on the pre release it’s only title is Betty but the real title is Betty Be-Bop Song, that’s what will be on the final record jacket.
JazzUSA: On Cold Duck you mention Eddie Harris by name in the lyric.
JazzUSA: Is it a tribute?
Al: Exactly. Exactly it’s a tribute to Eddie Harris. Another one of those guys who didn’t get the awards and the kudos he deserved but who touched my heart and my spirit because he knew you could be a jazzer and still invite people to funk and dance. I want people to listen to my music too, but I don’t want every piece to be something you have to sit and mull over in your mind, I want them to get up and dance! That’s why Boogie Down and others like that I sang. So… yeah Eddie Harris… and it’s not the first time I’ve visited some Eddie Harris… I also did Compared To What.
JazzUSA: Having grown up in chicago, I recall a long while back on a PBS Chicago show called Soundstage, you and Chick Corea doing a version of Whispering…
Al: Yea yea yea yea! Wow! That’s where it began…
JazzUSA: That’s where Groovin High came from?
Al: That’s where it began. I began the lyric then, and just finished it a few months ago. Things take a while.. you know (laughing).
JazzUSA: 22 years to write the lyrics!
Al: Right ain’t that something? And Blue and Green took even longer. I did that on the record with Narada Walden called Heaven and Earth… the lyric for Blue and Green took even longer.. I don’t know if anyone discovered that record … yet. I began that lyric in ’63 or ’64 and finished in the middle 90’s and came on this record.
JazzUSA: Was the Soundstage appearance the first time you and Chick had gotten together?
Al: oh yeah… that would have been the first time we really played any music together. We knew each other before that and he invited me to come, and that was the beginning of my interest in working on that song which happened some several years later on a project that Jay Graden produced and I went and wrote the Be-Bop lines for an already begun lyric that Artie Marin had begun. I mean he wrote the (begins singing) Yesterday, just a photograph of yesterday and all it’s edged folded and the corners faded sepia brown, and yet it’s all I have our time’s love, a postscript to it’s ending… and then I wrote the Be-Bop lyric, and so things take a little time. One of the beauties of having a career that’s not one song long on top radio is that you get to grow and evolve as an artist (laughing).
JazzUSA: Did that collaboration lead to Spain?
Al: Exactly! It led to Spain. It led to my finally doing that song during the Jay Graden period, which lasted for about five albums, and I finally finished that lyric and did the song.
JazzUSA: On the new CD, the only common name between the performers and the composers is Russell Ferrante. Is that a coincidence? And what’s a Skootchabooty?
Al: Well the title is just what is says, and you have to listen to the song a couple of times to get the notion that what I’m talking about is ‘Get Your Boogie Down’. Get up and move, it’s time to go, time is wastin’, you can do it if you get your boogie down… Skootchabooty bottom move… Skootchabooty bottom move…
Well, Russell is one of my heroes for a long, long time. All that work he’s done over the years in various guises, including Yellowjackets. I called him 18 years ago, if it wasn’t 20 years ago, and said “Russell let’s get together and write.” I went to his house with this very piece of music in my head and sang him those opening lines (scats the melody for a moment), then he came up with the bridge (more extended scatting), then I wrote the lyric for it!
One day we have to do it in the form we did it that afternoon with Russ playing the left hand… bass player get outta’ town! Somewhere on cassette tape I have me singing dummy lyrics, and him playing accompaniment, just two of us, and a left hand to die for, so yes… that song has history too. No coincidence, no coincidence that Russ is there, and I predict that he and I will come together again and do more things.
JazzUSA: My son, Stephen II is only 27 years old and he said to tell you he LOVES your music, and he’s not the only young person I know that loves your music.
Al: (Laughing) say that again and keep saying it… I just recorded it (laughing).
JazzUSA: Many artists and record companies are changing the style of their music releases to reach the younger generation, you don’t do that. That can’t be attributed entirely to your past crossover hits, is that appeal intentional or just because the music is good, and everyone appreciates good music?
Al: Well, I crossed over but I’m not so sure the kind of music that I did of a crossover sort is relevant today because it’s a whole different kind of rap-n-roll these days, and I’m not sure I can reach a young audience doing exactly that music. What happened is because I’m an R&B singer and Pop singer I’ve done more of that music, still influenced by jazz, as I have jazz music itself. We were talking about those tunes that I’ve done that were really directly out of the jazz book, I’ve reached people. I’ve reached young people and a young audience. You should see my audience in Europe, you’d fall on the floor. In the front row, at outdoor venues in the summer, is kids 15-30, all standing there jumping up and down and dancing, ’cause I want people to dance to my music. Then I give them some Spain. Then I give them Joe Zawinul’s A Remark You Made and their eyes roll back in their head as they hear, in the same context, coming out of the same mouth, with the same musicians that refuse to have borders, they hear this other music that they go and find later. Yeah, they find Chick, and they find Dave Brubeck because… First of all, radio there is so broad you hear me between Beastie Boys and Sting (Laughs). It’s real broad and the kids feel less barriers between music.
JazzUSA: I hate to use the word idol, but who are your idols?
Al: I LOVE the word idols, and I got ’em. They are lined up and they run all the way from Johnny Mathis and John Hendricks, who were the greatest influences on me, the balladeer? Johnny Mathis was an extension of Nat King Cole, so Nat King Cole was certainly one of the idols. If John Hendricks is a jazz singer, then he and of Ella Fitzgerald are certainly Idols mine. People who I wanted to be like, tried to sound like (launches into a short segue of Unforgettable)… hey man! Are you kidding me? Idols! If you don’t have idols, I don’t know how you come to pick up an instrument or pick up a mike and try to sing. You want to communicate like that person that touched you so deeply that you can’t help but get up and take the mike when someone hands it to you, or pick up your horn and play Diz licks or Sanborn licks. Oh, idols are so important, the touch us in our heart, change our lives as listeners and push us to do music, write music, bring music to people ourselves as musicians and singers.
JazzUSA: OK, so speaking of idols from another point of view, what do you think of (R&B singer) KEM?
Al: I plan to be in touch with his management in the morning (laughs) and tell ’em “Come on let’s do something together”. I don’t know if that’ll happen, but I think it’s something we ought to do. There’s enough there that we are cut from similar cloth and I think we ought to do some work together.
JazzUSA: Just for general information, what is Al Jarreau’s favorite color?
Al: Blue and Green. I love them… blue of the sky and green of God’s greenery.
JazzUSA: Been good talking to you Al.
Al: Thank you… thank you for letting me Yakety Yak.